Historic Preservation

Posted September 18, 2020
  • Antony Gormley sculpture, “Another Place,” on Crosby Beach, Merseyside, at high tide. (Peter Williams, Historic England)

Excerpt: Meredith Wiggins on Climate Gentrification

“Climate gentrification” is a term that is getting more traction in both popular media and academic circles. However, little has been done to link this new paradigm to built heritage and place. In an essay from the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation’s Change Over Time journal, Meredith Wiggins, senior environmental analyst at Historic England, describes the importance of heritage to understanding how climate gentrification and heritage are inextricably linked, and outlines the importance of heritage to understanding how climate gentrification will shape landscapes, cities and neighborhoods in the future. “Eroding Paradigms: Heritage in an Age of Climate Gentrification” was originally published in Change Over Time 8.1 (spring 2018).

The displacement of populations owing to climate change is already causing social, political, and economic instability.(1) Underlying environmental risk (even where climate effects are not yet at their peak) is an important cause of this displacement,(2) and can and will be characterized as a primary driver of some current and much future gentrification. Of course, different cultural and environmental drivers mean that the action being taken by individuals, communities, and governments is not the same everywhere. For example, in the Global South, blanket adaptation planning is leading to what amounts to climate gentrification.(3)

The process of gentrification itself is changing. While “traditional” gentrification is and always has been about “place,” climate gentrification is less concerned with affordability and/or “authenticity” or connection to the past, and is rather more focused upon practicality and the reduction of environmental threat.(4) This also means that the gentrifiers are changing. In the past, gentrification was defined as an issue affecting lower-class residents displaced by middle- to upper-class gentrifiers.(5) However, this definition works less well for climate gentrification because some of the traditional drivers (affordability, access to the center of a city, etc.) need not necessarily be present.(6) In a model where the primary impetus for displacement is environmental pressure, anyone, of almost any class but the very highest can be displaced. This is an important point. In a future affected by climate change, only the wealthiest portion of the population will be able to afford to live where they choose.

This is where tension with the historic environment comes in. If the older areas of a city are situated on the most resilient land, over time this land will become more desirable. It is claimed that this is already happening on parts of America’s east coast, but it seems likely that the phenomenon should be much more widespread in coastal areas around the world. Why isn’t it visible? Well, for one thing, there is debate about whether the term gentrification applies to non-Western cultures at all.(7) Though it is valid to raise this point, it is also important to be critical of discourses that define or spin gentrification as cultural progress, and therefore not problematic. A conspicuous lack of the voices of the displaced is a hallmark of the cultural progress argument,(8) and unfortunately this distorts the picture of current climate displacement for many regions.

A second consideration is that many of the populations currently facing sea level rise and climate impacts are not in urban or tourism-heavy regions, and so will not necessarily face displacement by gentrifiers (though they may be displaced by emerging industries instead, which will likely mean the total loss of their built heritage as well as the landscapes they know and value).(9) Interestingly, in some Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and in tribal and indigenous nations, individuals and groups are choosing to hold their ground and live with rising water levels rather than move.(10) This is a testament both to the importance of place in the creation and maintenance of personal and social identities and to the resilience of the traditional practices that sustain these societies. In this case, the fact that climate gentrifiers will likely not be an issue means that the physical, cultural, and intangible heritage of these groups may have time to adjust to new climate realities. The same cannot be said for the Caribbean islands battered by storms in 2017, which currently face both the loss of their built heritage and the threat of opportunistic developers.

Though climate gentrification may not currently be as visible or as widespread as other types of climate impacts, its potential ramifications are extremely worrying. Consider this: if the primary reason to move to a particular area is environmental security, what happens to the cultural values inherent in those places? The intangible heritage of an area, which constitutes part of the social glue of communities, is in jeopardy. In the narrative of traditional gentrification some cultural or architectural values may be conserved or at least recognized by the gentrifier,(11) but this need not be the case in climate gentrification. In fact, historic areas, which are often low-rise and built on a human scale,(12) may not provide the desired amount of density and so could actually be at greater risk. Climate change is already causing social instability- but if, as is projected, two-thirds of the world’s population will soon live in cities(13) the vulnerability of cultural and physical heritage may act as a further driver of unrest. This danger is tacitly recognized in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, where the safeguarding of cultural heritage is a priority nested beneath the target focused on “. . . making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.”(14)

1) International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook, October 2017. “Seeking Sustainable Growth: Short-Term Recovery, Long-Term Challenges” (IMF, 2017), https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2017/09/19/world-economic....
2) See The Nansen Initiative, Agenda for the Protection of Cross-border Displaced Persons in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change, vol. l (The Nansen Initiative, 2015), https://nanseninitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/PROTECTION-AGEND... United Nations General Assembly, The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. Resolution 71/1, Adopted 19 September 2016, http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol_A/RES/71/1.
3) Isabelle Anguelovski et al., “Equity Impacts of Urban Land Use Planning for Climate Adaptation Critical Perspectives from the Global North and South,” Journal of Planning Education and Research 36, no. 3 (May 2016): 333–48.
4) Japonica Brown-Saracino, A Neighborhood That Never Changes: Gentrification, Social Preservation, and the Search for Authenticity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
5) See Tom Slater, “Gentrification of the City,” in The New Blackwell Companion to the City, ed. Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson (West Sussex, U.K.: Blackwell, 2011), 573.
6) See Shaw, “Gentrification.”
7) David Ley and Sin Yeh Teo, “Gentrification in Hong Kong? Epistemology vs. Ontology,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38 (2014): 1286–1303.
8) See Qian Gao, “Social values and archaeological heritage: an ethnographic study of the Daming Palace archaeological site (China),” European Journal of Post-Classical Archaeologies 6 (2016): 213–34.
9) Kumari Rigaud et al., Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration (Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, 2018), 31.
10) E.g. Laurice Jamero et al., “Small-island Communities in the Philippines Prefer Local Measures to Relocation in Response to Sea-level Rise,” Nature Climate Change 7 (2017): 581–686.
11) Brown-Saracino, A Neighborhood That Never Changes.
12) National Trust for Historic Preservation, Older, Smaller, Better.
13) United Nations, The World’s Cities in 2016 (United Nations, 2016).
14) United Nations, The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2018 (United Nations, 2018).